Curator of the Month: Carol Thompson, Wolverhampton Art Gallery

This Black History Month, we speak to Black Art curator Carol Thompson about the projects she's been working on.

Name and job title:

Carol Thompson, collections officer (maternity cover) at Wolverhampton Art Gallery – on secondment from position as cultural exhibitions programmer/Black Art curator at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

What inspired you to become a curator?

I didn’t set out to become a curator but I feel incredibly lucky to have found this as a career. As a teenager, back in the 1980s, I had visions of going into theatre design but a chance came for me to work in publishing so this was my first career path – working initially as a picture researcher for books on art and interiors, then as a writer/editor for children’s information books. However, I’d always loved the idea of presenting ideas and objects to provoke curiosity. My mum was a big collector of miscellany (mainly bits and bobs bought from jumble sales) and I remember as a child putting on mini exhibitions in the front yard of my home in South Yorkshire and inviting neighbours along to view them. I was always the one who took interesting objects to school and I could be relied on to provide the costumes and props for school plays. I suppose I love presenting things in interesting ways, so curating exhibitions is my perfect job.

What was your first job in the museum world – and how did you get to where you are now?

My first museum job was as a gallery assistant at Stafford Art Gallery in 1988. However, it was only for a few months as I was offered a position as writer/editor for Usborne children’s books in their Wolverhampton office. This was a huge career break for me. I worked with a creative team of designers, artists, photographers and production staff, and developed strong project management skills. I was promoted to managing editor of Usborne’s Wolverhampton office and worked there until I had my first child. I then worked part-time for an educational publisher in Stafford for the next 10 years.

In 2006 redundancy forced me to reconsider my options. I’d always regretted not doing an Art Foundation course after leaving school so, at the age of 44, I went back to college and pursue my interest in art and design. I toyed with the idea of being a practising designer/maker but I realised that I wanted to combine my love of art with my interest in communication, and use my organisational skills too – so gallery work seemed the perfect choice. After applying for several museum jobs I realised that I wasn’t going to stand a chance without an appropriate postgraduate qualification so I enrolled for an MA in Heritage Management at the University of Birmingham. It paid off. The course was fantastic and it gave me the opportunity to approach Wolverhampton Art Gallery for a student placement. I remember speaking on the phone to Marguerite Nugent, then senior curator, and knowing instantly that this was where I wanted to work. It was such an inspiring and inclusive place with a very strong focus on community and outreach projects – but I still wasn’t entirely sure where I fitted in.

I started out working on publications and interpretation at the gallery, then, in 2011 Marguerite gave me my first curatorial project. It was a small exhibition as part of the Home of Metal festival, focusing on the industrial heritage of the Black Country and its influence on heavy metal music. This led to a series of really interesting curatorial projects, mainly working on a casual basis or picking up on short-term contracts. I had to remain very flexible and be prepared to tackle anything from in-house exhibitions to touring shows to public art projects. I also worked across the City of Wolverhampton Council’s other arts and heritage sites, particularly Bilston Craft Gallery. There were times when curatorial work was thin on the ground so I had to supplement it with other jobs. My first permanent position with the curatorial team finally came last year when I was appointed as cultural exhibitions programmer (job share). I was also lucky enough to be offered the job of Black Art curator alongside this, leading on a HLF Collecting Cultures project to collect work by black contemporary artists. However, things never stay still for long and I am now in a secondment as collections officer (maternity cover) until Spring 2017. Fortunately, I’m also still able to keep my involvement with the Black Art Project.

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

I’ve worked on many exciting projects over the past six years but I think the high point has to be leading on the Black Art Project. As Black Art curator I’ve had the opportunity to visit the studios of some brilliant contemporary artists, get to know them and their work, and help Wolverhampton Art Gallery to acquire several astonishing pieces for its collection. Art Fund has played a supportive role in this by helping with the purchase of one of the major acquisitions Spirit of the Carnival by Tam Joseph. I was also lucky enough to receive funding through the Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants scheme to visit the Venice Biennale last October, to help with my research for the Black Art Project, and I was granted a place on the Sotheby’s Institute course Navigating the Art Market this summer. In May we put the new acquisitions on show in an exhibition called Black Art in Focus and it was a proud moment seeing the works displayed together and celebrating this with the artists and guests. It’s been a real joy helping with the community engagement aspects of the project too; enabling local people to find meaningful links with our collection feels very satisfying and worthwhile.

One of the biggest, but also one of the most gratifying, challenges was to lead on redisplaying our semi-permanent Sensing Sculpture Gallery, funded by DCMS Wolfson. This is a hands-on gallery, which is hugely popular with families, schools, and visitors with disabilities. The aim was to make sculpture as accessible as possible to as many visitors as possible, including those with visual impairment – so being able to touch the works was very important. We also wanted to celebrate Wolverhampton’s contribution to the story of British sculpture, as the city’s art school was a major centre for the study of sculpture until the mid-1900s. The project required a lot of research: visitor questionnaires, consultation with the local centre for the blind etc. Every decision – about colour scheme, layout, interpretation, plinth height, style and placing of audio units and so on – was based on our research findings. I also commissioned interactives designed especially for the under-5s, in collaboration with my Craftplay colleagues from Bilston Craft Gallery, as well as a contemporary art commission – a large-scale, walk-in, light and sound sculpture. There were considerable conservation issues to deal with too, and tricky technical challenges. The redisplay definitely put my project management skills to the test and required a great deal of patience and diplomacy!

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

Keep an ideas journal. Note down what you’ve liked or disliked about exhibitions you’ve visited, what’s worked and what hasn’t, what’s inspired you. It’s like an artist’s sketchbook – it makes you more observant and analytical and it’s something you can refer back to. I’d also say it’s important to develop really good organisational skills as curating involves a heap of admin and you often have to juggle many of different tasks.

What’s special about working at your gallery?

Working in a beautiful, inspiring building (Wolverhampton Art Gallery never fails to lift my spirits) and the privilege of working with a fantastic collection – we have the biggest collection of Pop art outside of London, as well as a brilliant range of works by Northern Irish artists which focus on the Troubles, some lovely 20th century works and a great range of art and objects relating to the Black Country’s heritage as a centre for manufacturing and design. Also, working with a team of clever, creative, talented, generous people. There are always challenges – job cuts, restructures, funding cuts, too much to do with too little time and money – but somehow we manage to keep going. I love the city of Wolverhampton too, and it’s always such a pleasure when I see local visitors come to the gallery and find something inspiring or thought provoking in our exhibitions.

What are your favourite objects in your collection/exhibition and why?

This is so difficult. In the end I’ve chosen items that have a particular significance for me rather than necessarily the ‘stars’ of our collection. The first is Donald Rodney’s Untitled (Cowboy and Indian after David Hockney’s We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961), 1989. I find this large pencil/graphite drawing so enigmatic. What’s going on, and what’s the relationship between the two figures? The flat, white hand placed on the ‘Indian’ could suggest friendship or something more proprietorial and sinister – it could even be seen as a stencil or brand mark. The faces are grotesque and seem frozen in the awkward moment. But the drawing is also full of energy. I find it quite mesmerising. This is a new addition to Wolverhampton’s collection, which I was lucky enough to help select during my role as Black Art curator for the gallery’s HLF Collecting Cultures project. Donald Rodney was an early member of the BLK Art Group, which has its roots in Wolverhampton. He died prematurely of of sickle cell anaemia in 1998, leaving behind a stunning body of work, including a series of fascinating sketchbooks, which have been acquired by Tate. I tried to find references to Cowboy and Indian in the sketchbooks but there’s nothing obvious – although Rodney definitely had a thing about Westerns, and the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed.

My second choice is an etching called Teeming (1977) by Harry Eccleston. In 2012 I curated an exhibition featuring the prints and drawings of Eccleston, a Black Country born artist who became the first full-time bank note designer for the Bank of England. Wolverhampton Art Gallery holds a series of his prints depicting the interior of a local steelworks and I find them really atmospheric. Eccleston was the most amazing draftsman and the detail in his works is exquisite. This particular print shows workers inside the factory overseeing in the process of teeming – a stage of steel production where liquid steel is poured into moulds to solidify. Eccleston had wanted to sketch inside the steelworks since his boyhood and finally got the chance in late adult life. Through working on the exhibition Man of Note I met Eccleston’s family and was in touch with some of his ex-colleagues (he died in 2010) so I felt I really got to know him. The exhibition attracted the attention of the then governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King (also from the Black Country), who paid the gallery a special visit. Another highlight of my career has to be taking him for a personal tour of the exhibition.

Away from work, how do you spend your free time?

I live close to Cannock Chase in Staffordshire and I love walking across the chase with my dog. I always seem to have my best ideas when I’m walking. I’ve also recently taken up cycling again, and I do a weekly yoga class. Until very recently a lot of my time has been taken up with raising a family but I’m just getting used to being an empty-nester so I finally have more freedom to visit galleries; Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool are all within easy reach and London is only an hour and a half away.

What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?

One standout exhibition within the past 12 months was Encounters and Collisions at Tate Liverpool, curated by Glen Ligon. I visited Tate to see the Jackson Pollock exhibition Blind Spots but I spent a good two hours in the Glen Ligon show next door. It brought together art and other material that Ligon references in his own work and that particularly move or inspire him. Ligon’s focus on American history – especially the struggle for Civil Rights and the African-American experience – was particularly pertinent to me as I’d just started my role as Black Art curator. The exhibition juxtaposed works by some of my favourite American abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock with exciting contemporary artists including Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen and Lorna Simpson. There was a powerful curatorial voice throughout the exhibition so it hung together really well, despite the wide range of work and different media. The exhibition was provocative and many of the images and ideas stayed with me for a long time afterwards. Kara Walker’s shadow-puppet film 8 Possible Beginnings: or The Creation of African-America (2005), for example, was particularly compelling. The exhibition gave me a vivid view into other people’s worlds – which, I think, is one of the main functions of art.

Last year, Carol Thompson received a Jonathan Ruffer grant to fund travel to Venice for her research into black contemporary artists included in the biennale.

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